[Original published in TDF Stages, September 13, 2017.]
How a multimedia artist is bringing a Long Island family back to life
Alison S. M. Kobayashi has an offbeat hobby. “For the past 11 years, I’ve been collecting found audio recordings, letters, and objects — usually things that have some sort of trace of the previous owners,” she says matter-of-factly, as if everyone does this. Now she has combined her quirky pastime with her crack research and graphic design skills to create Say Something Bunny!, a singular solo work inspired by vintage audio recordings that’s running at UNDO Project Space in Chelsea.
The idea for Bunny was planted several years ago when a friend gave Kobayashi a pair of wire recordings (a now-defunct technology) featuring an anonymous family. She immediately fell in love with these unknown people, including two adolescents she eventually identified as David and his younger brother Larry, their parents, plus assorted neighbors, aunts, and uncles. She spent several years deciphering the tapes — the often-murky audio made her work challenging — but she persevered and was able to ID the participants via census records, newspaper clippings, and other sources. “Sometimes you just need to look at something, listen to it, read it, and bury it, like a little seed or something,” Kobayashi says. “You let your subconscious do the work, and the discovery of what to do comes later.”
Christopher Allen — Kobayashi’s husband, dramaturg, and coworker at the documentary arts org UnionDocs — admits it was challenging to transform her research into a show. “In early phases, it wasn’t going to be a performance at all, but an installation or a single-channel video piece,” he says. “Then we got very excited about the idea of a ‘book’ at the core of the performance.” When Kobayashi and Allen learned that David, who made the recordings, had been a playwright, the piece’s unique format was born.
The intimate audience of 24 sits around a table in front of heavily annotated transcripts, and Kobayashi assigns each spectator a particular character to follow carefully, personalizing the experience. The physical scripts are much more than just dialogue — they’re filled with historical references, photocopied documents, and analytical thoughts. “I want to relay the pleasure that I had in making the piece,” she explains. She also hopes viewers will experience a truncated version of her journey of discovery. “You don’t really need to give people that much for their brains to start making the connections,” she says. “We want to see connections, to see patterns, to connect to people, and to feel empathy. It’s so natural.”
Allen adds that the scripts aren’t just “texts of utility” but “about storytelling and ideas.” They’re also meticulously designed in terms of where inserts are placed in the narrative. “They build upon each other, with moments of foreshadowing and payoff anticipated in the layout,” he says. “Every page is 30 seconds of the recording, and the page is divided into 60 horizontal lines, each representing half a second. It’s sort of like a musical score that has a sense of a grid and timing and a way of reading.”
During the two and a half hour show, Kobayashi contextualizes the recordings with slides, videos, additional audio, and costumed re-enactments. It’s a carefully calibrated version of history through a theatrical lens based on one family’s leftovers, but also a universal meditation on what it is any of us leave behind after we’re gone. (Larry is the only person on the recordings still alive.) The chitchat on the audio may be unremarkable, but the show’s presentation and message are profound and resonant.